Chicago Bears (left to right) Julius Peppers, Henry Melton, Major Wright and Stephen Paea ling up to tackle Minnesota Viking running back Adrian Peterson. The Bears won 39 to 10 in game at Soldier Field. | Thomas Delany Jr.~ Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 19, 2011 8:50AM
It was a confidence-restoring performance by Jay Cutler, Devin Hester and a much-maligned offensive line. The same could be said for Julius Peppers and a defense ranked among the worst in the NFL after five games.
Mostly it was a respite for general manager Jerry Angelo, and not just because the Bears dominated the Vikings 39-10 to remain on the fringes of the playoff race.
Angelo has taken a beating for not doing enough during the offseason to shore up the team’s obvious weaknesses, and rightly so. His draft record speaks for itself. The man has been in charge on draft day for 11 years, and yet Gabe Carimi and Chris Williams are his only first-round picks on the roster.
That’s what made Sunday night’s developments refreshing. The most-asked question after rookie second-round pick Stephen Paea made his debut was: Where has this guy been? Rookie third-round pick Chris Conte made his first NFL start, pairing with 2010 third-round pick Major Wright at safety. The duo combined for 10 tackles and didn’t give up a big play.
These are significant developments because the Bears have been unable to consistently produce young playmakers, especially on defense. It’s too early to tell, of course. We’ve been fooled before. But if Conte and Wright are the safeties of the future and Paea can be a consistent presence inside, this team is that much deeper, the future that much brighter.
“It’s critical that young guys come in and compete as soon as they get on the field,” defensive end Israel Idonije said. “It adds so much depth to what we’re trying to do. You need young guys that can come in and maintain a high level of play. It’s critical to the team’s success.”
It’s amazing what one game can do to change the perception of a team. A bona fide NFL offense replaced the bumbling unit the Bears have fielded for four weeks, although why it took so long to realize what should’ve been obvious on the first day of training camp is baffling. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz finally realized he must use maximum-protection schemes to keep imaginary birds from circling quarterback Jay Cutler’s head. Duh. The result was one sack allowed and a 115.9 passer rating for Cutler.
It makes you wonder what might have been had Martz drawn up similar game plans against the Saints, Packers or Lions, but that’s not Angelo’s fault. That’s on coach Lovie Smith, who has to sign off on whatever madness Martz cooks up from week to week.
All Angelo can do is deliver players to Smith and his staff, which is why he must have been delighted to see Paea sack Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb for a safety on his second snap of the game. The former Oregon State standout was looking like another bust after spending the first five games on the inactive list, although it’s difficult to criticize his selection. The Bears needed offensive and defensive tackles, and they got Carimi and Paea, who were both highly rated and filled pressing needs.
If they disappoint, the NFL establishment will have been wrong, not just Angelo.
“I came into the game thinking one play at a time, just doing my assignments,” Paea said. “What I found out today is the only thing that’s different is the uniform. They are going to have an offensive guard, a center and a tackle. The only thing different is they had a Minnesota Vikings jersey on.”
Conte was the one who looked like a reach. One former NFL scout who watched Conte frequently when he was at Cal had him pegged as a fifth- or sixth-rounder and thought Angelo reached in the third, which he has been known to do.
Conte and Wright were so deep to prevent big plays, they had to use flares to communicate with linebackers.
“I definitely had some nervousness and some jitters,” Conte said. “But a lot of times that prepares you for your job and what you have to do. I came in and executed. We’ll go from there, learn from the game and come back next week and be better.”
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot of season left. In the case of Paea, Conte and even Wright, there’s a lot of career left. We thought Michael Haynes, Dusty Dvoracek, Marcus Harrison and Jarron Gilbert might be the answer. They weren’t. That Angelo has taken safeties in the last seven drafts speaks to the difficulty he has had identifying talent at that position.
But, for one game at least, the 2011 draft class shined, and Angelo got a reprieve.